President Trump unleashed a blistering attack Wednesday on Germany and other NATO allies, wasting no time to take the offensive before a week of high-stakes diplomacy on both sides of the former Cold War divide.
The series of meetings — beginning with NATO and capped by a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — has been largely framed around Trump’s claims that Washington bears an unfair burden to help protect its allies.
“Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in a fiery on-camera exchange that was among the harshest in the history of the post-World War II alliance.
“We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against,” Trump said, referring to European purchases of Russian natural gas.
Trump has complained bitterly about Europe’s lagging defense spending, saying that NATO nations were taking advantage of U.S. military largesse at the same time they were offering unfair trade terms to U.S. businesses.
A favorite target of his ire has been Germany, which has not met its NATO spending commitments and is beginning construction on a second natural gas pipeline to Russia. Germany and other European NATO partners argue, however, that they have boosted contributions to the military alliance and plan to kick in even more in coming years.[Ahead of NATO summit, allies wonder: Will NATO survive Trump?]
The accusation of Russian influence may have been particularly biting to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist-controlled East Germany.
“I myself experienced that a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union, and I am very happy today that we are united in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany,” Merkel told reporters as she entered NATO. “We decide our own policies and make our own decisions.”
The U.S. leader traveled to Europe saying that a Monday summit with Putin will be the easiest of his week of diplomacy — an unusual assertion that upended NATO leaders’ belief that the alliance should project a strong and united front against a strategic rival.
Trump has preferred to take aim at allies.
Even Stoltenberg — a mild-mannered former Norwegian prime minister who has cultivated a positive relationship with Trump — appeared reduced to spluttering as Trump cut him off after he started to explain that allies traded with Russia even during the Cold War. Earlier in the exchange, Trump demanded credit from Stoltenberg for forcing an increase of NATO defense budgets.
“It was also because of your leadership,” Stoltenberg told Trump. Budget increases started after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and they have accelerated in the Trump era in response to the U.S. president’s criticism.
“We’re supposed to protect Germany but they’re getting their energy from Russia,” Trump told Stoltenberg, as aides on both the U.S. and NATO side of a long table shifted in their seats and sat stonefaced. Chief of Staff John Kelly jerked his head away as U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison looked up at the ceiling. “So explain that,” Trump said. “And it can’t be explained and you know that.”
Trump’s criticism set off immediate anxiety in Germany. Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung headlined its story: “It is not only bad, it is catastrophic.”
Germany’s energy relationship with Russia has long frustrated Washington and Eastern Europe, who fear that the Nordstream pipeline that bypasses the Baltic nations and Poland could be used to cut them off from crucial energy supplies. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is a top executive at the Russian-government-controlled company that runs the Nordstream pipeline.
Trump’s laser-focus on Germany has unsettled Berlin, which had grown accustomed to a strong relationship with then-president Obama. Trump plans to meet one-on-one Wednesday afternoon with Merkel, where he will reiterate the same tough message to her face, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Trump is in Brussels for two days of NATO meetings. Following that, he will travel to England to meet with British Prime Minister Theresa May, spend the weekend at one of his private golf clubs in Scotland. Finally, he will head to Helsinki for a summit with Putin.
NATO members have agreed to a long list of efforts they believe will strengthen the alliance against Russia and other rivals, making it easier to speed military forces across Europe and toughen its counterterrorism initiatives.
But many diplomats fear Trump’s anger over defense spending will overshadow the summit. Some even worry that he might withhold his signature from an agreement that has already been approved by national security adviser John Bolton, repeating a move he made last month at the Group of Seven summit in Canada.
That would send the alliance into a tailspin, damaging security by opening the question of whether NATO’s most powerful member is still willing to defend its allies if one were attacked.
NATO leaders also fear what concessions Trump could make to Putin.
Trump has raised the possibility of pulling U.S. troops from Germany. At the G-7 summit, he told leaders that he believed Crimea belonged with Russia because most of its residents are Russian-speaking, another position that would upend much of the West’s security decisions against Russia since 2014.
After meeting with Trump, Stoltenberg tried to paper over the differences, saying that the bottom line is that NATO is getting stronger.
“President Trump has plain speaking, sometimes very direct pointing at specific allies, but when it comes to the whole message we all agree that NATO has to share the burden in a fair way,” Stoltenberg said during a conference at NATO headquarters that is running alongside the summit.
“My main task is to keep all of our allies together,” Stoltenberg added.
Source: Washington Post